The Pew Research Center released in early April an in-depth demographic study titled, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050: Why Muslims are Rising Fastest and Unaffiliated are Shrinking as a Share of Global Population.”
“While many people have offered predictions about the future of religion, these are the first formal demographic projections using data on age, fertility, mortality, migration and religious switching for multiple religious groups around the world,” the report said.
Key highlights include the projection that from 2010 and 2050 “Muslims – a comparatively youthful population with high fertility rates – are projected to increase by 73 percent. The number of Christians also is projected to rise, but more slowly, at about the same rate (35 percent) as the global population overall.”
The report summarized, “As a result … by 2050 there will be near parity between Muslims (2.8 billion, or 30 percent of the population) and Christians (2.9 billion, or 31 percent), possibly for the first time in history.”
The obvious conclusion from such an important study is that Christians and Muslims, as well as theists and non-theists for that matter, must learn to get along for the sake of global concord.
Tiny, yet religiously complex Lebanon has the potential to serve as an excellent case study for what such a future world might entail.
The actions taken, the hospitality shown, and the interfaith relationships formed now in the regional microcosm that is Lebanon can serve as a model, for good or ill, as to the future of our planet.
The irony is the fact that in Lebanon many can drive to and from church without passing a single mosque, or vice versa. So, we meet at the mall instead.
The silliness of such demographic studies, however, derives from the manner by which we use them to buttress our identity politics.
There seems to exist a bizarre sense of self-satisfaction in knowing that Christians remain “No. 1!” and that our top position, for now, is secure.
On the other hand, the sense of moral panic derived from the notion that Islam is catching up, and might one day surpass us, is likewise silly.
I am reminded of the ongoing feud in Lebanon regarding which buildings have the tallest minarets or bell towers. Apparently, when it comes to the mission of God, the bigger the better.
There is a darker story to this competition for numerical, architectural and often geographical predominance between the world’s most numerous religions.
Historian Richard Bulliet poses an important demographic question in “The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.”
“Suppose … one were to ask what percentage of the world Muslim community is composed of descendants of people who converted to Islam between 1500 and 1900. The answer would surely exceed 50 percent,” Bulliet asserted.
He continued, “[B]y contrast, if one were to ask what percentage of today’s [Christian] populations descend from ancestors who converted to Christianity between 1500 and 1900, the answer would be well under 20 percent.”
What accounts for the difference?
In Bulliet’s account, “European monarchs trumpeted their intent to Christianize the world, but settled for economics and military might. Muslim rulers … strove mightily to create rich and powerful land empires, but only sporadically thought of converting their subject peoples to Islam.”
So, counter intuitively, Islam “won” the conversion game. For ultimately, Bulliet explains, “parts of Africa and Asia saw ‘unofficial Islam’ succeed precisely because it was a potent alternative to the Christianity being propounded by the imperialists. If imperialism was a form of foreign tyranny, Islam, unwavering in its vision of a universal and legal moral order, increasingly became the bastion of resistance to tyranny.”
In the face of Western colonialism, often undertaken with the tacit approval of Christian religious authorities, a form of “unofficial Islam” took up the banner of the resistance, and grew exponentially as a result.
This innate drive toward numeric, architectural and geographic security often results in the tendency to ally ourselves with empire. However, such alliances often resulted in the exact opposite of their stated intent.
The historic inability of the visible church to divest itself from imperial power has too often resulted in guilt by association, scapegoating and flat-out rejection, such that the very drive causing us to gloat/panic over demographics is the very cause for our having “lost the race.”
Even more so, such alliances represent a betrayal of our crucified messiah, who models for us the narrow path of self-sacrificial love in his rejection of imperial compromise.
With the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, an instrument of imperial domination becomes in biblical imagination the ultimate symbol of divine love and the power-reversing means by which God reigns.
To follow Jesus, to take the narrow path, is, therefore, to surrender our claim to numeric, geographic and even architectural domination as we trust in the resurrection and the ultimate lordship of Christ Jesus.
Jesse Wheeler is projects manager at the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) based in Mansourieh, Lebanon, at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. A longer version of this article first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow IMES on Twitter @IMESLebanon.
Jesse Wheeler is MRel program administrator, support instructor for MENA history, politics and economics, and program support Instructor at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary’s Institute of Middle East Studies in Lebanon.